Sunday, March 17, 2013

52. New York Hodgepodge 2.docx

WBAI again: when is the truth too much?

         We’ll begin with a horror so as to get it out of the way.  This is a follow-up to post #16 – the first post of this blog – published in July 2012: My Love/Hate Affair with WBAI , and to post #50, WBAI -- again!  To escape the high rent of their Wall Street studio and its vulnerability to hurricanes and flooding, the station has moved to a safer location farther uptown in Harlem.  They are now engaged in another of their interminable fund drives, offering unusual premiums – unusual for any station other than WBAI – to listeners who pledge a certain sum of money.  On one program the host was offering a CD documentary entitled “Lynching: An American Tradition.”  Several excerpts were presented, telling in graphic detail the mutilations that often accompanied the killing, and emphasizing how these affairs were entertainment for the community, with a ritual aspect.  These stories are well documented, leaving little room for doubt, but they are, to put it mildly, gruesome.  The host told how one black teacher (I don’t know at what level), when acquainted with the material, announced that under no circumstances would she offer it to her students, lest it cause them to hate white people.  But WBAI insists that its mission is to bring light to dark places, and that the most hideous details of our history need to be known.

Not the Deep South but Duluth, Minnesota, June 15, 1920.  A postcard.

         All of which raises the question whether the truth should always be told, in its entirety, regardless of consequences.  In this case I wouldn’t say no, but I have serious reservations.  Under what circumstances, and to whom?  I think the teacher was right: this is not material for schoolchildren, because it must be absorbed by persons mature enough to acknowledge the facts without being overwhelmed by them – in other words, by adults capable of judgment.  History is a bitter pill to swallow, and none bitterer than the lynchings so common in the South – and often too, alas, in the North – between 1890 and 1940.  It’s not just the mutilations that shock me, but also the social aspect of these incidents, as registered in photographs that were taken of the participants and witnesses: smiling throngs happy to pose for the photographer, usually men and boys but also at times a sprinkling of women.  Some of the photographs even ended up on postcards, which prompts another question: who would send such a postcard, and to whom?  

        Yes, the lynchings had a ritual aspect, but I also see in them something of an exorcism, a blind and ruthless expulsion of imagined evil, a supposed purification of the threatened community.  And all this was a common occurrence – condemned in the North but condoned in the South – well into the enlightened twentieth century.  Are we all barbarians and sadists at heart?  Reading descriptions like those in the CD, and seeing the photographs taken, one may well think so.  Yes, history is a bitter pill to swallow, and it imposes a heavy weight of awareness; not everyone is up to bearing it.  With this in mind I have omitted certain other even more shocking photographs -- archived in the Library of Congress, by the way -- and will not focus on such material in the future. WBAI  may well criticize such an attitude, but I leave it to them to delve into the most unsavory episodes of our national history and make them known.  Facts are facts, but how many of these can we take at one time?  

What price the Met?

          The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is one of the world's greatest museums, harboring marvels from all over the world.  (Some of them may have been stolen, but that's another story.)  The admission price is $25 for adults, $17 for seniors, and $12 for students -- admittedly, a bit pricey.  These prices, however, are recommended -- strongly recommended -- but not obligatory.  It's a fairly well-kept secret that one could get in for a penny, though I suspect that not many do.  Out-of-town visitors probably pay the full price without question, but savvy New Yorkers, if brazen and thick-skinned enough, know how to play the game.  A friend of ours -- we'll call him Jim -- goes monthly and routinely pays only a dollar.  This takes courage, for the building itself is majestic and monumental to the point of intimidation, and the vast hall just inside is equally imposing, suggesting a palace of wonders, a citadel of art.  Can one really gain entrance to these storied halls by paying only one measly dollar?  This is an adventure for the hardy few.  Wimp that I am, I have often paid the recommended price, though on occasion I have squirmed in for less.  But with the adult price now $25 -- matching that at MOMA (the Museum of Modern Art), where you either pay the price or are denied the riches within -- I don't blame anyone for paying less.  Which brings me to a story.

Wouldn't one be intimidated already, approaching this majestic Beaux-Arts façade on Fifth Avenue
with its soaring columns, palatial steps, and flaunted banners proclaiming the marvels within?

          Recently a friend of ours -- we'll call her Beth -- came from New England with her grown daughter for a brief visit to the city.  They were on a tight budget but determined to see the Met.  Hearing Jim talking of getting in for only a dollar, they decided to follow his lead.  So they mounted the front steps, entered the vast hall, and approached a guardian of the portals positioned behind her desk and ready to receive the admission price and give the visitor a small badge to be pinned to one's clothing, showing the guards that this person has indeed paid to get in.  In front of Beth and her daughter was another woman -- surely a knowing New Yorker -- who forked out a mere fifty cents.  Glowering, the guardian of the portals literally flung the badge down on the counter.  Beth then stepped up to the counter and put down a dollar and a half.  "Is this for both of you?" the guardian asked incredulously.  "Yes," said Beth, masking her nervousness with a feeble attempt at brazenness.  The woman then gave them two badges, but with such a withering look of derision that Beth winced visibly even when recounting the incident to us later.  That look, she assured us, would be with her for days, if not weeks, to come.  Moral: Be bold, be brazen when paying less than $25 at the Met.  This game is not for the faint of heart.

File:MET - The Great Hall - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA - 2012.JPG
The Great Hall.  Everything about it -- the uniformed guards, the surging crowds, the vaulting far
above, the towering statue on display -- is likewise awesome and intimidating.  Would one really
   dare to offer only fifty cents or a dollar to enter these world-renowned chambers of magnificence?

          Footnote:  The Art Institute of Chicago -- another palace of wonders -- charges adults $25 for admission, seniors $18, and students $14, but offers discounts to local residents: adults who are residents of Chicago pay $23, and residents of Illinois pay $20, with similar discounts for seniors and students.  Met, take note.  This might help to lessen the one-dollar offerings.

How a nightingale became a cash cow

          When she arrived in the city in September 1850, close to forty thousand people jammed the docks to greet her, few of whom had ever heard of her until recently; so great was the crush, bruises and bloody noses resulted.  Setting foot on the ground, she kissed her hand to an American flag, announcing, "There is a splendid standard of freedom, worshipped by the aggrieved of all nations."  She then further endeared herself to the throng by preventing her coachman from clearing a path through the crowd with his whip.  Multitudes followed her to her hotel amid a sea of flags and triumphal arches, bouquets were thrown to her from windows, and some in the crowd fought -- literally -- for a mere glimpse of her.  Described in the press as being shy, modest, selfless, and devout, thanks to her publicist she was America's sweetheart already (decades before screen actress Mary Pickford), though almost no one had ever heard her sing.  Pictures of her were readily available, showing a lovely, modestly dressed, demure young woman of thirty about whom no taint of scandal could possibly hover -- no sizzling seductress of a diva, no threat to hearth and home, but a sweetheart for even the most moral of citizens.

          The visiting celebrity was of course Jenny Lind, the acclaimed Swedish coloratura soprano, and her publicist was P.T. Barnum, the king of humbugs, who in this instance was presenting to the public an attraction that was exactly what he claimed.  While touring England with Tom Thumb, whose diminutive presence he had presented to Queen Victoria, the impresario had for the first time heard of Jenny Lind and, noting her appeal to audiences, determined to bring her to America, where her reputation for morality and philanthropy, even more than her vocal accomplishments, would appeal to audiences.  Approaching her with Yankee bravado, he offered her $1,000 a night for 150 nights -- an unheard-of sum for the times.  How could he hire her without ever having heard her sing, she asked.  "Because, Madame Lind," he replied, "I have more faith in your reputation than in my musical judgment."  

          Lind might well have hesitated, had she known more about this man who had popped up out of nowhere.  Barnum had hoaxed the public more than once, and is said to have hired the worst band he could find to play on the balcony of his American Museum on Broadway, in the hope that they would drive people into the museum.   The museum itself harbored fossil and mineral collections, but also such phenomena as the Feejee Mermaid, a bearded lady who may or may not have been a bona fide lady, and a woolly horse.  And he had posted signs reading THIS  WAY  TO  THE  EGRESS, so that visitors anticipating another exhibit would proceed to the exit and find themselves out on the street, obliged to pay another admission to re-enter.  But these wiles were unknown to her, and she saw a splendid opportunity to raise large sums of money for the Swedish charities that meant so much to her, so she agreed.  But the Swedish nightingale proved to be a shrewd businesswoman: she demanded the fee in advance, forcing Barnum to borrow heavily, and insisted on a clause in the contract that gave her the option of withdrawing from the tour under certain circumstances.  Barnum was risking all in this venture, but he was sure his instinct was sound, sure that she would charm the nation.

          Barnum's advance publicity -- letters to the press, broadsides, biographies -- ensured that, when the singer arrived on these shores, vast numbers of Americans who knew nothing of coloratura singing would deem their lives dull, barren, deprived, and incomplete, unless they viewed this prodigy and, if possible, obtained a ticket to one of her concerts.  He accomplished this by putting numerous journalists on his payroll, so that press coverage was constant and enthusiastic.  Sponsored by him, a poetry contest produced an abundance of doggerel that even so kept her name before the public.  Not to be outdone, merchants produced plates, bottles, figurines, and medals bearing her features.  There were Jenny Lind bonnets, gloves, cribs, chairs, sofas, pianos, and even a Jenny Lind sausage and a soup.  Newspapers advertised the best engravings of the singer (slightly retouched; photographs showed a fuller, plainer face), and promoted Jenny Lind opera glasses and fans and concert hats.  And when a glove of hers was allegedly found in the street, the finder charged others to kiss it: one shilling on the outside, two on the inside.  "Lind fever" had swept the country.  Boasted Barnum, "Everything was Jenny Lind."

          Lind's first concert was to be given in Castle Garden, a former fort at the Battery that had been converted into an exhibition hall, opera house, and theater.  Seeing the public's fervor, Barnum auctioned off the first few seats for unprecedented sums; by virtue of being the first purchaser, a New York hatmaker himself became a celebrity.  The auctioning distressed Lind, who thereafter persuaded Barnum to offer a substantial number of tickets at reduced prices.  Furthermore, seeing the fortune Barnum was bound to realize, she insisted on renegotiating her contract so as to obtain more money for her beloved charities.  In this demure, most charitable woman Barnum had found his match.

File:Castle Garden, New York, during one of Jenny Lind's concerts.tiff
Jenny Lind at Castle Garden

          Lind's first concert at Castle Garden was, to put it mildly, a smash.  Not only was the house packed, but those unable to obtain tickets rented rowboats and enjoyed the concert from the water.  She sang "Casta diva" from Bellini's Norma, a duet with a baritone, a piece by Meyerbeer that let her perform astonishing vocal feats, and some Swedish songs.  When, against her wishes, Barnum appeared on the stage and announced that she was donating her entire fee for the evening to local charities, the resulting shouts and applause were deafening, and many spectators were reduced to tears.  Apparently mindful of the women's rights convention at Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848, Washington Irving insisted, "She is enough to counterbalance, of herself, all the evil that the world is threatened with by the great convention of women.  So God save Jenny Lind!"  The proceeds from this first concert alone were such that Barnum recouped his investment fourfold.

          After her two New York concerts Barnum escorted Lind on a tour throughout the country, where "Lind Fever" raged unabated.  Her singing, said Barnum in a broadside, would remind one of a mother's love, a sister's kiss, the sinless pleasures of childhood.  Be that as it may, his Queen of Song finally tired of his ruthless commercial promotion, and in 1851 invoked a clause in her contract that let her terminate their relationship; they parted amicably, each having realized a fortune.  She continued the tour under her own management, and married her pianist/conductor before returning to Europe.  As for Barnum, his promotion of her -- his greatest success in a long career with many successes -- is seen by many historians as the beginning of modern advertising.  That accomplishment alone, we Americans must surely admit, catapults him to the pinnacle of greatness.

Banknote:  Veteran viewers of this blog know the love I have for my bank,  J.P. Morgan Chase.  And how could it be otherwise, when they give me free pens and candy, and provide a hand sanitizer as well?  So I am shocked -- shocked! -- to see this august institution now assailed on all sides.  Congress has grilled its executives ruthlessly over so small a matter as a six-billion-dollar loss in trading, and regulators assert that the bank's lending practices are less than reputable.  How can this be?  Old J.P. would never have stood for it.  But I am sure that J.P.Morgan Chase will survive these petty assaults and return to its noble function of manipulating money.  The attacks on it are no doubt inspired by envy but, given time, they will vanish like the morning dew.

(c)  2013  Clifford Browder


  1. Regarding the MET, I love it there. It is such a beautiful place, I like to wander through the different halls and just soak up in the world around me. It is like facing an avalanche of past and present culture. You walk in and the whole world is there. People from every culture you can think of has come and gone to that place. I can't imagine ever paying only a dollar. I'm seriously broke but if I ever go, I make it a point to at least pay ten bucks. I would never as an artist and as one who loves that place, dare spend any less.

  2. Thank you, Anonymous. Your comment rounds out the discussion nicely, and I happen to agree.